The best thing that happened to Dumb Money is that I saw Pain Hustlers before that review posts, because after seeing Pain Hustlers, I went back to my Dumb Money review and revised it as “not THAT bad”. Pain Hustlers, however, IS that bad. Directed by David Yates (of Harry Potter cinematic universe fame) and adapted by Wells Tower (a real person, not a building, I checked) from Evan Hughes’ book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup, Pain Hustlers is a fictionalized version of the case presented in Hughes’ book. In real life, Insys Therapeutics sold a spray-version of fentanyl called Subsys, in the film, Zanna Therapeutics sells Lonafen, and real founder John Kapoor is traded out for imagined founder Dr. Jack Neel. I’m not sure why Pain Hustlers fictionalized all of this, the case is fully adjudicated, it’s not like there are reputations to protect at this point.
Anyway, Pain Hustlers is centered on Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a down-on-her-luck single mom in Florida, raising a rebellious daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. One night while working as an exotic dancer, Liza meets Peter Brenner (Chris Evans), a pharmacological salesman for Zanna Therapeutics. Impressed with Liza’s coerciveness, he hires her as a pharma rep. She has one week to “invent a doctor”, which means finding a morally malleable physician to write a script for Lonafen, their fentanyl wonder drug that promises instant, non-addictive pain relief for cancer patients.
On the raft of things wrong with Pain Hustlers, let’s start with the miscasting of Emily Blunt and Chris Evans. We know from films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Knives Out that Evans can play a real asshole, but he never quite clicks as the ambitious, morally repugnant Peter. Firstly, he’s doing a weird accent, secondly, his best work as a villain is when playing an entitled man-baby, and Peter Brenner is not that. He’s a guy who is determined to beat the hand life dealt him through any means necessary, and Evans never hits the right notes of latent desperation to make that fully work.
Blunt, however, is even more miscast than Evans. There is no version of Emily Blunt that is believable as a working-class person (once upon a time, this was a problem for Sunshine Cleaning, too). Not only does she NOT master her Floridian accent, she is never convincing as a woman with no options left but to sell her soul to big pharma for a buck. Maybe if the film committed wholeheartedly to painting Liza as just another sellout shill, Blunt could have played a villain with relish, but as is, she is charged with portraying Liza as both a sellout AND what passes for the moral compass of the story. It doesn’t work, Blunt can’t find the right balance in the character, and saddling Liza with a sick kid is just plain manipulative. It’s a blatant ploy for audience sympathy in a film that also wants to make you mad.
Which brings us to the other big problem for Pain Hustlers—there are already a bunch of films, documentaries, and TV series about the opioid epidemic that are better done. From non-fiction works like The Crime of the Century, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, and The Pharmacist to fictionalized stories told in Painkiller and Dopesick, this is well trod ground. Further, there is also a sub-genre of “people behaving badly for money” films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short that clearly influenced Pain Hustlers in tone and style, except David Yates is not Martin Scorsese, he’s not even Adam McKay, and he cannot manage the careful tonal balance needed to make a film that is both entertaining and sharply critical of broken American systems that allow people to profit off the misery of others. (Arguably, even Scorsese couldn’t do it, as The Wolf of Wall Street is his most misinterpreted film.)
Pain Hustlers is a rehash of a rehash. It isn’t even leftovers, it is congealed, cheese-flavored goo someone dared called “macaroni and cheese”. It is the sh-tty cafeteria version of an opioid drama, propelled by nothing except a sense that we should all be mad about this…years after we all did actually get mad about it. Yates & Co. are late to the party, and we can’t even count on Chris Evans and Emily Blunt to save us from mediocrity, because they are wasted in this film, miscast and unable to overcome cliches and gimmicks to at least give interesting performances. Pain Hustlers isn’t even interestingly bad, it’s just a dull take on a now conventional story about the opioid epidemic. That is a serious topic—which is better served in other films and series—but Pain Hustlers is a deeply unserious film.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Pain Hustlers will play in limited theaters from October 20, 2023, and stream on Netflix from October 27, 2023.